My former pastor, the Rev. Chris Winkler, used to lead our Wednesday night contemporary service at church. One night he closed with a benediction, a quote attributed to Philo of Alexandria, the Hellenized Jewish philosopher: “Be kind, be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” [Wikipedia cites only one “be kind” in the phrase but I like Chris’s version better.) The benediction struck me at my core: at the time I was struggling with my own battles that I hadn’t yet made public, and it seemed Chris–and Philo–were speaking directly to me.
I couldn’t help but think of this quotation when I learned a few weeks ago that a friend of mine died of an apparent suicide. Like many people confronted with the death of a friend or loved one by suicide, at first I was in shock. How could that be? He was such a happy guy! Next came guilt: When was the last time I spoke to him? His name was on a list of people I planned to reach out to during the holidays, but I hadn’t yet done so. Why hadn’t I known he was in such pain? Then came anger–how can someone do this to himself, causing such anguish and irreparable damage to the family who loves him? Illogically, and knowing how crazy it sounds, I felt hurt and abandoned in spite of knowing that his choice had nothing to do with me.
There’s a whole world of mental health issues out there that we are ill-equipped to deal with, and suicide is just one of them. My daughter’s friend turned me on to a podcast called “The Hilarious World of Depression,” interviews with [mostly] comedians who also suffer from depression. The host, John Moe, told his own story of his brother’s suicide and his reactions, including the typical but fruitless “What could I have done differently?”, as if we somehow have the power to prevent someone’s decision to end his or her own life. As if. That’s “hubris” with a capital “H,” I know. But it’s normal and natural and we shouldn’t feel guilty for feeling guilty.
My friend Joy Meredith posted recently on her blog about the need to face mental illness and the cost of denial, as well as the need to ask for help. In “My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Joy reminds us that “there is no prize for toughing it out.” We need to seek help, even if it means getting second and third opinions. No one needs to suffer alone.
So back to that great benediction… how many times do I have to learn that same lesson? The lesson is that YOU JUST NEVER KNOW. You never know what kind of baggage people are dragging around with them, what demons haunt them, what battles they are fighting. Jealous of a friend’s house? Later you learn it’s in foreclosure. Wistful about that lovey-dovey relationship of a neighbor and her husband? She later confides in you that she was being abused. Envious of the trappings of what looks like “the perfect life” of a family member? Scratch the surface and you’ll find stories of some kind of dysfunction. No one has a “perfect” life. That doesn’t make me feel better. It just reminds me that we share this great messy experience of slogging through our struggles to get through the day, as well as the responsibility of taking good care of each other along the way.
Today on this first day of 2018, a day of New Year’s resolutions, I resolve to be kind–in word, thought and deed. My mom once signed an autograph book that I had received for my 10th birthday: she wrote, “Beauty is as beauty does. Always think beautiful thoughts and do beautiful deeds.” I was puzzled by it then but now I understand. Beauty is fleeting but our kind words will always be remembered. I resolve to be kind in 2018 and beyond because, after all, you never know what people are carrying around with them. Remember that everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. Assume they need your kindness. And, when you need it, don’t be afraid to ask.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255